Donald Brind on cumpulsory voting
Eddie Izzard writes his own jokes. He made that very clear when I offered him what I thought was a good line he could use in pressing young people to get out and vote. “Vote and you get stuff, don’t vote and you get stuffed.”
I was touring North London marginals with the Labour-supporting comedian and Eddie was a bit sniffy about my offering. It cut no ice when I pointed out that the author of the aphorism was the young, supersmart editor of the New Statesman Staggers blog Stephen Bush.
I was reminded of the exchange by Mike’s posting last week on the political implications of the greater propensity of older people to vote – and thereby to be given “stuff” by the Tories – a variety of benefits for pensioners are locked into the system while the you are hit by cuts in housing and , unemployment benefits and maintenance grants.
Getting young people to actually use their vote was a major preoccupation of Labour campaigners – including Eddie Izzard and leader Ed Miliband. Remember his dalliance with another comedian Russell Brand?
In the runup to the election I was reporting for The Week and I posted a piece discussing the idea of compulsory voting, as a way of involving young people. . I noted that in Australia, where registering to vote and going to the polls have been legal duties since 1924, turnout in the 2013 general election was 93%.
What I found particularly striking back in January 2015 was that two influential columnists on the activists website Conservative Home were saying nice things about a private members Bill presented by the veteran Left wing Labour MP David Winnick. It proposed a law on the Australian model.
Tim Montgomerie founder of Conservative Home and a Times columnist was clearly surprised to find himself backing the idea. He told Times readers “I’m not comfortable recommending any kind of compulsion. But I’m much more uncomfortable at the prospect of Britain becoming some sort of gerontocracy where older (and richer) people decide who is in power. This is a much greater social evil.”
Montgomerie argues that “A skewed electorate produces skewed public policy.” Older people are more likely to vote so parties woo them. “That’s one big reason why austerity has fallen so disproportionately on younger people with families.” He cited housing and benefits as examples where older people got a better deal from the Chancellor George Osborne.
Another Con Home writer Peter Hoskin was clearly uncomfortable about supporting Montgomerie. “There’s something weird and un-British about the idea of compulsory voting, isn’t there?” But he was impressed by arguments in a report by the Left think-tank IPPR Divided Democracy which showed there was is a gap of more than 20 per cent between turnout figures for 18-24 year olds and the national average. “Unsurprisingly, it’s voters over 40, and particularly over 65, who push that average up,” says Hoskin.
Hoskin came down in favour of IPPR’s suggested half way house “that voting be made compulsory, at pain of a fine, for first-time voters only. This makes sense because voting is what they call “habit forming”; once people pop to the ballot box they just can’t stop.”
Labour’s prescription is votes at 16 strongly advocated by the London Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan. He told the Independent it was part of a package to make voting easier for the young with polling stations should be set up in secondary schools, on-the-day voting registration and perhaps online polling. “Why do elections take place on a Thursday? Why do you have to go to a cold church hall to cast your vote? Why can’t you vote by the web? Why can’t you have same-day registration? You can get a mortgage in a day – why can’t you do the same with voting registration? If the concern is fraud, we can address that.”
Khan says “If you speak candidly to a campaign manager of any of the mainstream parties they will say that they concentrate their energies disproportionately on those they know are going to vote,” he said.
The arguments are very similar to those of Montgomerie who argues that compulsory voting is really all about forcing politicians to reach beyond their comfort zones. “It’s a 20-minute burden for voters once every four or five years but it would compel our politicians to change in fundamental ways and to build much broader voting coalitions.”
Making the political parties find a way to appeal to the 16 million people who did not vote “could have a profound effect on British politics.” He adds there would need to be strict caps on political donations “so that the rich and organised cannot find back-door ways to reassert their disproportionate influence.”
Is George Osborne listening? Almost certainly not. Montgomerie is a supporter of the social justice movement in the Conservative Party. He thinks Osborne is a flop, as he makes clear in a recent must-read dissection of the Chancellor’s record on Capx. The disdain is probably mutual.